But I’ve been occupied with classes and my spare time has been filled with applying for scholarships and writing poetry reviews for the Volta Blog, the first of which appeared yesterday. Read it here.
Hope to get back to you with some more science fiction reviews soon!
It is not everyone’s desire to swim as a fish.
I have a little dog that behaves like a cat,
it is not his fault he cannot pass the discipline test.
Today we are reviewing Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s My rice tastes like the lake (Apogee 2011). Born of Tibetan parents who fled in 1959, Dhompa was raised by her mother in Tibetan communities in India and Nepal. She earned a BA and MA from Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi, an MA rom University of Massachusets Amherst, and an MFA from San Francisco State University. She has published chapbooks and poetry collections including Rules of the House (2000) and In the Absent Everyday (2005). She’s also apparently the first Tibetan woman poet to be published in English.
What struck me first about My Rice tastes like the lake was its tranquilly logical phrases. Dhompa’s poetry is at times prose-like for this calmly rhetorical style. Yet this register is often mediated by sudden intrusion of speaker’s vulnerability, or by a turn to a more familiar address:
Exemptions are in
the generalizations so I adopt experience
as lesson and use fish and flotsam
for metaphor and analogy. Of all, best,
the idea of duplicating a life lived
because I miss her.
And insofar as this book resembles at times a rhetorical essay, it weaves together an examination of the difficulty of being caught in language (or between languages), and the experience of being an exile, a refugee, in a world where national identity is what legitimates personal identity:
We cannot continue as we are.
We cannot forget we are guests
who have overstayed. I invite you
to living against (as we do).
It is not enough to have one tongue.
It cannot point to everything
and in every direction.
We do not use our mother tongue
for our lovers. Beloved,
we speak your words.
What do we want? Freedom.
When do we want it? Now. Protest
in the mother tongue. Free now
from the notion of continuity.
The present is the utterance;
now is too late.
Thus the poet essays to describe the inadequacy of English in English. As English speaking readers we begin to question our notion “now”, of the present moment as a point on a linear continuum. Perhaps another language might grasp this better.
This is a world vitalized by words, by the power they have to attribute intent, emotion, moral disposition to our surroundings.
After rain, a swarm of flies
misbehave like stubborn stubble.
Claimed by multi-legged beings,
hair loosens from its comfort of a braid.
Rain seeps into animals who lie
still, the wind breathless from blowing.
Until sun convinces us to take
our layers off; dismisses the hats
Here, even the sun has the power to convince: or at least, that she conveys it as possessing that power is raises a question about where rhetoric originates. That is to say: “Until sun convinces us to take our layers off” seems clear enough, we all understand making choices in response to our surroundings; but the poet’s talent is in the way she reveals something odd in this conventional logic. If “dismisses the hats we wear” is mere personification (of the sun) then it’s nothing too odd. But up against that first clause, it is not mere personification: to be convinced is to concede agency, to admit that our fate is not our own. “The sun convinces.” And this is what’s so startling, how she closely interrogates the actual patterns of words that we’re accustomed to, how she reverses and disrupts them:
tell her voice apart.
Let’s talk a bit more about the examination of boundaries, belonging and privilege in this book. Dhompa’s incisive (yet always low-key) observations here are often devastating:
In the world of the civilized,
we are present on days we schedule for
Back to “now” – for “now” as it is understood here in English, is destabilized, is emphasized as a mere word, a word which reflects a world view, a concept of history as linear, a diagram she troubles:
So far from where I should be,
neither time nor place
is referential. I leave
today and will
see you yesterday.
So here we have it: language is identity, is identity of all sorts. “Reference is not genetic”; and thus the notion of “being from a place”, like the meaning of words and sentences, is not innate, but is nonetheless consequential:
I ask feet to forget
the summer rendered in sentences.
After we speak of beauty, we are led
to its consequences.
Language is a system of exchange and ritual, I think, and an inadequate one:
I refer to myself as here and to you as there,
we must be to each other as fixed points.
In time, it will be clear
what we are looking for is a system to be happy.
The poem’s sections are entitled:
My rice tastes like the lake
Which I note because it’s handy, I find when tackling challenging little books like this to pay attention to the differences between sections. (And I’d like this blog be a place where I help people of my level of experience – as in, not very high — figure out how to read poetry). So in “perigee”, which means “the point in the orbit of the moon or a satellite at which it is nearest to the earth”, we find:
To consent to a theory of belonging I embrace
renunciation in the mountain and concede to the immateriality
of citizenship. The time to leave a country is when it accepts me.
That is, she speaks in this section of almost leaving the periphery, but never being part of the center.
And then in “catabolism”, which means “The metabolic breakdown of complex molecules into simpler ones, often resulting in a release of energy,” we have:
Too much time has been spent in introspection,
he says there is a procedure to becoming circumspect.
This is when one attempts to unthinking. The mind is
a whirlpool, a whirlwind void: not too loose, not to tight.
In short, it is a startling book, startling because of the poet’s ability to create a phrase that is at once precise and familiar, and yet perplexing. We have the sense that she knows things about English (who is fluent in several languages) that who have never ventured from anglophonie will miss:
This mind, rapacious as the pantry
it stocks, does not see itself.
Reading this book made me want to know more about Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism, because I suspect that would bring it into a whole new light for me. As it is, I’m closing with this last extract because it’s beautiful:
If we are to consider suffering we must follow
the upheaval of a thought: a papaya is lost to raindrops;
a house catches fire; a body snaps as a matchstick or a leer;
a crowd combs the beach for diamonds washed
to shore from a pirate’s loot. We return to
the same question for if we remember sickness,
suffering, old age, death, then we must understand. Wind collapses the slender spine of an umbrella.
Everything held precious, conforms.
Sources consulted for this review:
Also, I haven’t read yet but just found another review over at The Volta.
[The language of poets] is vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relation of things and perpetuates their apprehension, until the words which represent them, become, through time, signs for portions or classes of thoughts instead of pictures of integral thoughts; and then if no new poets should arise to create afresh the associations which have been thus disorganized, language will be dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse.
— Percy Bysshe Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 1820
The premise of Dance Dance Revolution is marvelously imaginative. The book contains two voices, that of The Historian and that of the Desert Guide. The Guide is a former South Korean dissident who now works as a guide for the St. Petersburg Hotel, in a Las-Vegasy futuristic city called The Desert (the book is set in 2016). She is interviewed by the Historian, a scholar raised in Sierra Leone, and the daughter of a former lover of the Guide’s (who himself was a South Korean doctor and revolutionary). Most of the book is spoken by the Guide in the creole language of the Desert (a mixture of English, French, Spanish, German and Middle English), her stories interspersed with excerpts from the Historian’s memoir and occasionally annotated by the Historian’s commentary.
After I read this book I wanted to walk around shaking it under people’s noses, so they could know about just how nuts it is. I wanted to tell them about what it feels like to read a nonexistent language and understand it. The exercise of decoding the Guide’s creole felt like stretching an aching muscle until it loosened.
Take “Cholla Village of No,” a poem from the third section, “Education During the Year of Falling Hair”
…Progress maif sprinklim fortune
to all o Korea–pave street, condo y petrol
savin Daewoo autos but Progress skip ova mine
villa like a popula lass snubim
drossy fat girl …
… villa a sad sack groanim with bullocks
y huts, villa o exiled outcasts,
prison-loused insurrectas, pickpockets, lady fes
bum-lookas, gaseleo dous’n gun molls
I love how the Guide’s witty simile of the popular girl Progress skipping the “drossy fat girl” of her home village is funnier in Desert Creole than it would have been in Standard English, and how words like “drossy” emerge and make perfect sense.
The Guide has this talent to shape images with her words which she explains is a necessity in her vocation, as in the part from the St. Petersburg Dome series, “Atop the St. Petersburg Dome.” She describes the problems she had in early days, before she learned to use words to make the desolate landscape of the Desert appear beautiful:
When I’se comeupon fo tippame-turban job,
greyhound dogs, spectas en dawn forg,
traipse de trash-boil mountains fo scrap cook pork,
nut’ing left but scrap metal y bitterness…
I de frosh guide maki pennies ‘cos no one ooh-ahhing.
I guided misbegodder fool who vacation
en woebegone ruins. Tu, I mean, you trim.
To flower-arrange words so sand-piss
ash sounds like Melodious plot of
beechen green, try, nary!
This book is deeply concerned with the shiny enamel of language that overlays rotten reality. The challenge and pleasure of reading it is that is isn’t in English. While this may frustrate some readers, I think it adds a dimension of meaning and opens possibilities for expression. Let’s take a look at one my favorite poems from the book, “The Voice.” This poem comes from the section in the book called “Kwangju,” in which the Guide recounts details of her participation in the real 1980 Kwangju rebellion, which was brutally put down by a US-backed Korean government. The Guide had a pirate radio station and her broadcasts rallied revolutionaries against the repressive regime. However, because of her baldness (caused by a rare disease) she was shunned in person by her followers for her ugliness. Her lover was Sah, an old school mate and fellow revolutionary (and was also, remember, the Historian’s father).
… Dim call me voice o Kwangju
uprising’s danseur principal…but samsy, es funny,
I’s voice of Kwangju since dim multitudes who
cryim fo acceptance shun mine presence…
…I’s lose me wig en passion o rally,
mine ball head nekked, mine oysta eyes
filla-up wit wadder, stompin podium,
spout ricanery to rally crowd…
…but crowd dim boo me, t’row rocks a’me,
rocks intended fo plis patos, balfastads, trown a’me!
So I’s paddles tru clog, aways from Sah, run
y hide en me dead fadder’s house, hid like
I’s hidim now en Desert…
…Bine day tree o aataclap, heads lop off,
bung it up union leadas ‘rrested, bayoneted,
teacha celled for esypim, pulp students
slung into trucks lika spud sacks…no leaders
left…Sah ask please come back,
we’s need direction…
I slink back, no heraldic air…
…No trumpetim angel me am from ‘im visionaire…
Bitta I’s am, not wantim to fes n’won…
Sotto voice I’s ses to Sah, I’s don want to
…Sah ses kay, you’ll fes n’won b’gib dim
ye voice…pirated a notch en radio
for me…aways from batons, de scrougim
eyes…en me amprage
hole, I’s shotput mine
Mine voice chattel tru amps, transista radios,
clock radios, furred mined voice batta’d Kwangju
streets, while mine scolded ball head
cloaked deep en broom sweepa closet wit mike…
Hearim me voice en radio, ma che si,
pot-belly war veterans sling up
WWII carbine rifle gainst sifa tanks… Coal miners
donated dim detonates…Housewives fed scabbard insurrectas
wit hot bowls o ttok-guk….
Steetwalkas hear me y march to hospital
to donate blood…haggard doctas say no!
to torn-stock streetwalkas who kem to donate
she blood but dey yell, “Our blood is clean too!”
while beatim dim chest…
Paratroopas clip off amp wires
but Mr. Cha come y rewire
amp back…mine decibel swatted away dragonflies
swarmim round shredded bodies…cut tru smoke
y copsal stink, clear eyesights
sored from peppa gas…lorn in lore o love…
b’all ended…paratroopas find where we be,
surrounded de school basement…try to smoke
us out into rancid air… I’s first to
sneak our back way…paratroopas
rushed into school…
while I’s rush away, t’inkim Sah behind me…
I’splunged inta frail ragged mob, who
gib me a kerosene bomb to hit de school…
…Shroud o gnats in late aftanoon sun,
shroud o mob
A frail body o toweled mob
bull-dozed one afta mob
into mob into frail body o
toweled mob dove sta memora
…a kerosene bomb, it twine en air
a kerosene bomb roll, it twine en air,
did not soar as I’s plan but float, but before plummet before
spume gown o powda
I replay dat arc intra air, tortuously
twist as I’s look befo fleeing,
will it hit its target is Sah out
is Sah out is he
Our first task is to acclimate ourselves to the grammar and vocabulary of the Guide’s creole: dim for them, I’s for I am and I did
and we grow accustomed to abbreviations like “’rrested” for “arrested.”
A familiarity with the Romance languages helps (also, Middle English and German) – we must recognize that “y” means “and” and that a word like “espyim” means “to spy” (which you might not catch if you weren’t used to the tendency of English words that begin with “s” to begin with “e” in languages like French and Spanish).
We also have to start relying on our mental ear more; you have to actually hear the words “you’ll fes n’won b’gib dim / ye voice” before it resembles “you’ll face no one but give them / your voice” (more on hearing in a second).
That’s the basic work it takes to decipher the poetry in this book; but once it’s done, a closer reading reveals how Desert Creole reflects the culture and society in which it has evolved.
Take the two-word line “nihilent gallicry” where we have an adjective and noun composed from the following words and their connotations (maybe this is going out a limb… tell me what you think though):
nihilist – meaninglessness and futility
violent – destruction and bloodshed
gallic – k, I think, French, and therefore a reminder of the connection between linguistic and social upheaval plus also the French Revolution
cry – which, following the title, expresses the gist of this poem; the power of vocalization; not just of verbalization, not just the presence of meaning by way of words but the act of enunciating it. Language in this book is not just words but speech, and that’s what I meant when I mentioned the importance of hearing, which is that, for a book of poetry (as in a bunch pages that you read silently) this book makes drastically clear the importance of spoken language as a thing that exists independently of writing. It’s written in a creole that has no standard form and changes from moment to moment as people speak it, as the guide.
The poem “The Voice” moves me because of its dramatic pacing and the variation between the Guide’s dramatic, comic voice, and the her desperate and suspenseful tone toward the very end. I chose to use this poem as an example because I think it demonstrates one my favorite attributes of Dance Dance Revolution, which is that it is crammed with raw emotion and political outrage without “limiting itself to statement” (Henriksen).
Back to the poem and specifics, though. The contrast between the piling up of revolutionaries – the coal miner, the housewife, the streetwalker – the building of tension and violence – with the moment of personal loss and doubt when the Guide realizes she might have thrown the kerosene bomb into the building her lover still occupied. The Guide’s emotion, at the end, does not have to do with the failure of revolutions or the oppression of regimes, but the fear of doing the worst thing imaginable, which is hurting someone you love. And it works well because that’s what’s hard about having ideals; we are driven ultimately by personal motives, mostly, right? (Honest question, though… I’m not sure where I’m going with that).
I wanted the preceding discussion to explain why I think Hong’s invented creole is brilliant. Given what we know about how linguistic control can be a means of social control and oppression, her method makes perfect sense. If you’re going to write a book about revolutions, the language better be revolutionary. But in particular, if you’re going to write a book of poetry about revolutions, the language better be revolutionary, down at the level of grammar and vocabulary and not just in content, because poetry is the language of language, if you see what I mean, it’s the place we examine how we use language and how it might be used and what it should look like and sound like (I’m thinking about Wordsworth here).
Something we can learn from Hong is how to make effective use of dialogic structures (a term I am appropriating from some lit theory I picked up in class and hopefully am using acceptably, because it seems to fit well here). What I mean is, Dance Dance Revolution is a polyphonic book; it is a conversation. Most of the book is made of the Guide’s speaking shaped into poem form. These poems are annotated in Standard English and interspersed with prose excerpts from the Historian’s memoir. An intermission in the middle of the book gives us a portrait of the Desert in the voice of a third and first person narrator, sometimes fragmented:
Blood tone flood tone
woods over-swarmed with description
starless riotous woods
This part of the book contains a Desert almanac and a haunting portrait of New Town, the slum to which the revolutionaries of the failed Dance Dance Revolution were banished. The sudden shift from the voices of the book’s two principal characters to the unknown voice of a poet emphasizes the question: what form of language do we award the title poetry, that is to say, which ought we to privilege as the Art? The one closest to everyday speech? The most erudite? The most adventurous?
The voices in the book critique one another. The Guide’s eclectic and leaky pidgin-poems contrasts with the Historian’s precise prose, and this comparison forms an analog to the contrast between their histories. In one memoir clip, the Historian describes her childhood:
Despite the rumblings of civil war in Freetown, Sierra Leone, I spent most of my childhood in quiet solitude. I owned dozens of cookie tins filled with crayons and while my days drawing pictures in a sitting room with egg-white walls and a slowly rotating ceiling fan. I was a peaceful, oblivious child with only one true anxiety: the burden of consciousness. I had difficulty understanding why I—my mind, my consciousness—was in one body and not another. Did others posses the same kind of command and awareness over themselves? Were they just chattering machines without the gift of inner thought? I concluded that consciousness was a cursed, supernatural power that only I possessed and I had to keep it a secret. I attended an international primary school and I remember watching a short film about an animated mole with my class. The film reel stuttered and my classmate, Michel, whispered to me: “I will tell you a secret if you tell me a secret.” He quickly whicpsered his and then asked for mine. In my most solemn tone, I replied, “I can’t. It’s too big a secret. I can’t even begin to tell you.”
The Historian, then, is a complement to the Guide. Where as the Guide grew up amidst violence and later learned to create images with words, the Guide was raised in an imaginary world, a world where her consciousness and her thoughts were the only real things – so real that they could not be articulated. Am I going in circles here? It’s just that the premise here depicts exactly the problem I spend my days running around, which is how to not destroy reality by describing it.
Dance Dance Revolution examines the effects of globalization on authentic culture and language and thus brings in to question what authenticity even means. In the St. Petersburg Hotel series at the beginning of the book, the Guide gives the Historian a tour of the hotel (all the hotels in The Desert are modeled after real cities). In the part entitled “Preparation for winter in the St. Petersburg Arboretum”, the Guide instructs the Historian to:
Now samsy, grab un gun. BB down de riving ravens,
de vermin fatted jays, y jade headed mallards who wit
insolence nest en botany or out #3 prize-winnim plants,
who dare nest en heart o Russkies sculpt en shrubbery.
Thus we have orders for violence in order to maintain the controlled simulation of a simulation; the mimcry of a Russian arboretum which is itself a mask of nature. The question that begins to arise is, what does simulation of reality do to reality itself (Baudrillard)?
A city like The Desert arises from a completely globalized world, one in which the difference between original and reproduction has ceased to exist or become irrelevant.
So the troubling question posed by book is, if we cannot trust in our allegiance to the truth (authenticity, identity, the aura of the original, roots, axioms of conscience), where does that leave us? The Historian says in her Foreward that in the Desert, “new faces pour in and civilian accents morph so quickly that their accents betray who they talked to that day rather than their cultural roots.” In word of such ephemeral identity, where every moment is relative to the next and nothing sustains, how is it possible to have a soul? And indeed, the Guide is troubled by questions of her own duplicity; descendant from a line of informants and traitors, she has gone from being a leader of a revolution to a yes-woman herself, selling tips about dissidents to Desert officials to shore-up her retirement fund.
I think if there’s hope in this book it’s the mission that forms its premise: the Historian’s voyage to meet the Guide. We never learn exactly what motivates her interview with the Guide but presumably it has to do with both her position as a researcher and her personal connection to the Guide through her father. The book itself is an act of truth-seeking, of root-finding. It illuminates both the history of a whole society and the story of one individual: the Historian finds out what actually happened. In that sense, it’s about how revolutions die but also about how they persist.
Cathy Park Hong is the author of two other books, Translating Mo’um and Engine Empire, the latter of which I will definitely write about some time because it’s also excellent (I haven’t read the former, though I’d like to of course). Read this interview with her on Poets & Writers, where she talks about the relationship politics and poetry, read it now.
Also, I am categorizing this post under both poetry and science fiction, because it is sort of science-fictional. think the preferred term would be “speculative poetry,” but I want to associate Hong’s work with science fiction in order to pursue my aim of redefining what we think science fiction is and what it should do.
This book, originally published in German, was assigned to two years ago my introductory poetry workshop. It was an interesting item on our reading list, as the book more obviously qualifies as creative non-fiction than poetry (its American publisher, Penguin, classifies it as travel/reference). I agree with the instructor of the workshop, however. Atlas of Remote Islands is a book of poems, and I will tell you why.
Schalansky opens the book with an essay in which she describes her early attraction to atlases as a means of travel – something she was banned from doing in her early life as a citizen of East Germany. She then moves onto the story of islands and what they can mean: and escape, a laboratory, a prison, a utopia, a hell, a microcosm, a story, a stage. She then talks about maps & what it is to create a map:
Mapmaking follows on the heels of discovery; and a new place is born with a new name. This foreign land is both occupied and possessed and the act of conquering it is repeated in the map. Only when a place has been precisely located and measured can it be actual and real. Every map is the result and the exercise of colonial violence.
And, as so often is true with good writing, this essay is both about its subject and also about writing itself:
An island offers a stage: everything that happens on it is practically forced to turn into a story, into a chamber piece in the middle of nowhere, into the stuff of literature. What is unique about these tales is that fact and fiction can no longer be separated: fact is fictionalized and fiction is turned to fact.
That’s why the question whether these stories are ‘true’ is misleading. All text in the book is based on extensive research and every detail stems from factual sources. I have not invented anything. However I was the discovered of the sources, researching them through ancient and rare books and I have transformed the texts and appropriated them as sailors appropriate the lands they discover.
Schalansky thus makes a good argument for her claim that “it is high time for cartography to take its place among the arts, and for the atlas to become recognized as literature,” for like maps, like written histories, re-fabricate the reality they aim to represent.
Atlas of Remote Islands is also an exceedingly beautiful book. Schalansky has studied typesetting and in fact invented the font for the book. It is a pale blue, hard-cover book, with inside covers and dividing pages of a complementary toasted orange. At the top of each prose passage (which lie on the book’s verso pages), beneath the title, are carefully laid-out facts and visuals about the island’s coordinates, population, location, timeline, size, and national affiliation. The maps (on the recto pages) are sparsely ornamented, delicately printed masterpieces which represent the islands’s topography (by means of shading), villages and cities, landmarks, and roads.
It is a remarkably well-crafted book. And this attention to aesthetics makes sense: if journey by means of atlas is to be a rewarding one, shouldn’t the object itself offer something more than just what is contained in its text? Schalansky understands something profound about representation. She quotes the latin adage scribere necesse est, vivere non est — “only that which is written has actually happened.” And what is written is itself a happening. The representation is not merely a simulation, but itself is an experience.
But much has been made, in other reviews (all which are good reads: The Guardian, National Geographic, The Spectator, and Literary Review) of the aspects of this book that I have discussed above. Less has been said of the quality of the actual writing. Let’s talk about the poetry of the book.
What makes a prose poem a poem? My opinion is that is has to contain essential poetic elements — image, music, metaphor, and metric beauty. But, taking as it does the a shape we traditionally associate with narrative and plot, a prose poem ought to offer more semblance of a story than may be expected from a poem-shaped poem. What is brilliant about Atlas of Remote Islands is that it takes real, historical facts and, by means of poetic devices, transforms them into living stories. Here is an example, the entry in the book for Macquarie Island on page 78:
The text begins in manner of an information text, but establishes its poetic nature in the second sentence, “It is a piece of the earth’s crust from the ocean that just happened to shoot up above the sea level, a vertebra of an undersea spine that rises above the water.” The non fictional character of the text is affirmed by the use of actual quotation (one of these days I will do a whole post on quotation and found language). Double backslashes inserted between sentences suggest the pause or jump we experience with line-breaks and section-breaks in poetry. Most important (here and in poems in general, maybe): the ending image. Schalansky is a master of the haunting yet conclusive image — she has a way of ending each not with rhetorical statement or explanation, but with an image that leaves you feeling as though the story you have been reading is in fact entirely different than you first thought.
The compactness of Schalansky’s writing is astonishing, and upon closer reading it becomes evident that as much care has gone in to the structure, pacing and poetry of language in each passage as has gone in to the design of the book, the research behind it, and the drawing of its maps. Thus one thing we can learn from Schalansky in addition to the power of a book that is aesthetically well-planned, is the power of non ficiton that is carefully informed by the methods of poetry.
Today’s review is Matthew Henriksen’s Ordinary Sun, available from Black Ocean.
I picked this book up at the book fair at the AWP conference in Boston last April, not really knowing anything about Henriksen, but this morning Flavorwire published this list of 23 People Who Will Make You Care About Poetry in 2013 and Henriksen is included on it. So, check him out.
One reason I wanted to start trying to write reviews of poetry was that I wanted to be able to explain to myself and to others why I like certain poems, or books of poems so much. That may seem completely obvious, but it can actually be a difficult task. Many of my favorite books of poetry don’t make much sense in the straightforward here-is-what-I-am-writing-about kind of way, and are what some people would describe as “inaccessible”(which is a term I dislike), but I know what I like and I like these books and if I’m pretentious or clueless or a snob for liking them, well then that’s what I am. But actually, I’m not. There is good reason to like difficult, strange, seemingly incomprehensible poetry and I’m going to figure out what those reasons are and how to articulate them.
So there. Call that my mission statement.
That being said, you should order Ordinary Sun right now and spend the next three or four months reading it over and over and over again. Because that is what the book asks of you, intense and prolonged attention, and you will be well rewarded for it.
Ordinary Sun possesses a directness of meaning or of experience, an acute attention to the details of living in the universe and also in language. That is why I like it.
The first section of the book is entitled “Copse”, and it consists of a single long poem which feels to me like a childhood memory. I say this maybe because it uses first person plural, the way one does when recalling a prior epoch, like “remember when we used to do this?”, or in this instance it’s
Robins contained the hedges.
Trampled grass claimed the lawn.
We lived in a small house
in the quiet North.
For some reason first person plural is just the most nostalgic of verb-persons or whatever you call them.
But also, Henriksen has this way of subtly repeating phrases, not closely together, but spaced pages apart, so that each time you return to a repeated phrase it is familiar but does not register as a refrain. Bees pop up several time in this poem, but not so much or so frequently that it seems to be about bees. I know of a few poets who like to write about bees, and I think its because bees provide us with a multisensory experience (buzzing sounds, stinging sensations, the taste of honey, and then all of the associated meanings about spring, sweetness, communalism, biology, and pain)
Waking to whiteness and unsure
who is there,
the shape in the cloth,
my dove and blisters.
happens at least twice, and also just the words:
history as war
which is just three words if you read it once, but if you read it over and over you think, that’s odd, what does that mean? And then all the sudden it means something, something about memory, or about remembrance, or about the difference between the two.
Henriksen weaves his most slippery lines in between straightforward ones. It’s the switching between the two that leaves you feeling like you’ve fallen a short distance unexpectedly:
In a clearing between
a copse of elms and the river
conniving grew a shape.
We found light in a jar under the elms.
We drank at night and ran across the dam.
Nathan climbed down and stood in the river.
We broke into the lock station and threw
cinder blocks down the flood chamber.
I only asked for a beginning
in a blade chamber,
a shower of bees
in a cinder’s slam.
That kind of sudden move in to strange word-space makes my stomach flip in a weird nice way.
The next section is comprised of a series of titled poems, three of which are have “Afterlife” in the title: “Afterlife on a long, shallow hill”; “Afterlife with still life”; “Afterlife ending as a question”.
Which I point out to illustrate what I said earlier, which is that one thing we may learn from Henriksen is how to make powerful use of repetition. In the case of the “Afterlife” poems, firstly, they follow naturally from the tone of remembering in “Copse” at least I feel like they do. “Copse” ends:
We got out of the car.
We set our bodies in the grass.
Stones held our breath.
Which feels like the beginning of something but also a kind of death. So the end of childhood is a sort of death; and life is a series of afterlives, lives after lives. I’m not making sense here. Just read the poems and then you’ll get it, ok? This is the last line of “Regulations of the Assassins”, which is the first poem in “Is Holy”:
In all that nonsense I became a gun.
It’s raining now, goddam.
And then the next poem is “Afterlife On a Long Shallow Hill”, which contains one of my favorite lines of poetry in recent memory. Here’s the poem:
The footed rhyme of grave
gained this cobbler’s shrine
benign in grass, this body, alive,
as in a moving cloud, a sun.
And when. Or not when but of. Of longing.
After the night unglues it’s unknown anyway. Then o.
Oblivion’s lens never closes. Diner won’t blink.
Its song demolishes our total losses.
People were terrified, then gone.
The soil opened its skin, hatching poppies.
My favorite line is:
And when. Or not when but of. Of longing.
Why do I love this line so much? Look at what it’s made of. Count the nouns and verbs in that line.
Nouns: 1 “longing”. Verbs: 0.
(adverbs: 1, “not”).
Not that I have anything against nouns and verbs. It just blows my mind that some one can compose a string of conjunctions and prepositions and have it still mean so much.
It’s vague and ungrammatical and unconcrete yes, but somehow it’s still totally right, because first of all, beginning anything with “and” feels right because as far as we know nothing really begins, in life, but rather continues on from what was previous, and then, yes, the question we face is when, but then you grow to realize that no, it isn’t really about asking when because life, as we experience it, is only now, there is no when, and the question is not when and it’s actually not what either, though that’s part of it but really the question is of as in, the thing that the now is of.
And that’s it, the now is of longing. Longing for when and then of. And it makes that noun, there, at the end of the line, not cliché (because normally if I see the word “longing” in a poem I groan a little), not heavy-handed, because
it’s the only thing there, the longing.
You know what this poem makes me think of ? Annie Dillard’s essay “Total Eclipse”, where she describes going up on to a grassy hill to watch an eclipse, how the day died and was reborn in front of her.
Let’s just take a moment to admire Henriksen’s mastery of music, because we don’t do that enough when we’re talking about poetry, we get so much in talking about what it does or what it means, that we forget to stop and just mention what it sounds like:
disturbs our sentiment for violence
so the bush lays its ambush of lilacs
You just have a sense that this is someone who’s done his reading and practiced his scales and it is impressive.
The next section is called “The Talk” possibly because the poet in the section keeps referring to a boy, or what he’s saying or would say to that boy. I’m not sure who this boy is but I like to think that he looks kind of like a younger version of the poet, whoever that is. There are also a lot of angels in this section. One thing I noticed and liked was these moments of coltish allusion, for example, the first few lines from “Angels Give Birth at Sanitized Altars”:
Had I but time enough, boy, and a world to ravage
beyond the thick knots of my own blood,
she’d have me on the hood of a Honda
and conceive a horse.
In which the “had I but time enough” is (I think) an allusion to “had we but world enough, and time” from Marvell’s* “To His Coy Mistress”. Dunno why I remark this, except that it’s, well, a little funny, somehow, especially given the title. Horses pervade the entire book, actually, one of those threads that give the whole book a coherence despite its density.
The next section, “Mine of Losses” contains a woman character. We see the return of a blade chamber (which appeared in Copse), in the poem “Yard Work”:
The whisper lasted several hours in the blade chamber
and the bleeding slowed.
and I have no idea what a blade chamber is but apparently there is more than one of them.
I’m not just rambling here! The reason why I’m noting the blade chamber is because. Well. Because of what I said. I don’t know what a blade chamber is and I don’t think Henriksen does either or wants us to. Blade chamber just describes a direct experience. Sharpness, blood, and enclosure so tight that even a whisper echoes for hours.
God is in this section, and prayer, and
Mother stalking the playground howling scores,
raw umbrage, spare parts, gunstocks,
So somehow this sections deals with origins.
The next section, “Corolla in the Midden” is distinctly more bitter in tone:
we can get our grief from
the supermarket, the pharmacy,
and the toy store, rather
than having to earn
our pain by fucking up
at a motel on the turnpike.
Next to which, in my copy of the book, you will find penciled the words “oh, snap”.
This section also include perhaps my favorite four lines of poetry, ever, up to this point (though I’m still relatively new to this whole shindig):
I am not inclined to the earth
or what ruined us or what
we became. I can only say
we cherish ruins
because is this not so true of so many of us.
I will not write a book report of every single section, though I’ll say the next one moves on to “Gorge” and after that it’s “The New Surrealism.” In “Gorge” we break out of this tidy two-line stanza pattern Henriksen has had going on, and words start to spread around the page a little more. There’s death lurking here:
She felt like flesh. She wasn’t hanging.
“All answers are hells.”
What she heard about their house dripped from the faucet.
In the morning the tapping and water filled with light
A bucket in the garage burned.
In “The New Surrealism” we’re in New York, mostly, and there’s this feeling that something has died. The voice is more personal, it feels like it might actually be the same person as who is writing the book. Is it always that? Is it never?
Which may make this an opportune moment to point out another aspect of this book I like, which is that because it is divided, as it is, into sections (which vary in their composition, some being long single poems, some being collections of individually titled poems, and some being poems of numbered sections) it asks us to grapple with the question of voice in poetry – who is speaking? When does the speaker change? How are the different speakers related? I like to think that all of Ordinary Sun is spoken by the same person at different stages during their life, but maybe that’s not possible, or maybe it doesn’t matter.
The last two sections are “Beulah’s Rest” and “Ordinary Sun.” “Ordinary Sun” is a trip. It breaks all of the books earlier conventions of neat poetry-looking poetry, and has square sections of prose poems and stacks of long-lines, and lots and lots of figures from real life (Bille Holiday, Salman Rushdie) and bureaucratic diction and after reading it you might need to drink a glass of water and lie down for a bit.
After writing this review, I went and read an interview with Matthew Henriksen on Bookslut. He’s a bit brilliant. It would probably be of more use to you than this review, so go ahead and read it. Definitely read it if you are going to read his book. I am going to close here with two quotes from that interview that I copied in to my commonplace book:
Most contemporary narrative and rhetorical poems bore me because they limit themselves to statement, but the lyric can tell a narrative of perspective through immersion in an experience and can convey rhetoric by superimposing the poem’s perspective over the reader’s senses.
The less time I spend struggling with how to exist, how to survive, how to be happy, and the more I convince myself to drop my psychological burdens and just look at rocks and trees, the more I understand the potential within beauty.
I just finished reading Eric Baus‘ Tuned Droves (Black Ocean, 2009).
Here are some words I wrote down while reading:
snow, orange, echo, letter, sound, paper, owls, bees, vultures.
I liked Baus’ prose sections, which in tone sometimes seem to mimic an entry in an encyclopedia of natural history.
Anyway, I’m writing this review as a series of questions I ask and then answer.
1. What’s its deelio?
Speaking is something the body does.
“When a boy’s mouth collapses into itself, tiny flames release from his limbs. Although this is a small flash, he is startled by the sudden sun.”
A thought is a physical act, yes, but also, a physical event is a thought:
“Rain is when you get wet is what he think.”
That is to say, things that happen are things that happen to your body. We find a meld of flesh and paper and a host of strange animals. The vitalization of literature:
The Convex Vulture Unearth Ventricles
The formation of paper occasionally exposes the encyclopedia pigeon to the statue fish. This introduction creates a failed (sterile) collage. Failed collages exhaust themselves in air, water, and air. They cannot communicate with one another because of a dense layer of salt. In order to remain above the surface they must be renamed.
Letters are things that literally speak. To speak is to see is to disclose:
My sight is dim, said the woman. Another must be singing.
I am sorry, the letter said, it is too soon for me to tell about the paper train.
I mean it is too soon for me to see you.
Well I liked reading it. I like his animals like the statue fish and the convex vulture. I like the structure of all these small fragments of narratives that plink pebble-like on to the page and then ripple outward, and then fade. That’s one of the sentences you find in poetry reviews where, like, the reviewer is more into writing their own poetry than writing about someone else’s. What I mean is, he picks up stories but they don’t solidify, but they don’t go away either. There’s a woman, a man, a boy, the color orange, a piece of snow. They echo throughout the book, though there’s no story to tell.
A boy gets a bird from cutting paper. Birds become themselves when he sees them.
Dear paper birds, I can always see you. A woman, a man, and paper birds.
What are you doing, paper bird?
Removing myself from the sky
Isn’t it cool to think lines of text can talk to one another?
What question would we ask the book?
What’s the best shade of orange?